Hardcore Pioneers: The Descendents
Bill Stevenson could only react haltingly to the question he's been asked hundreds of times since punk rock -- the music he helped pioneer as drummer of the bands the Descendents and All -- became the music of choice for MTV and the twenty-something-and-younger crowd.You see, when Stevenson is asked what he thinks of today's second generation of punk bands, he knows he's really being asked whether he's jealous of his punk rock proteges. And no matter how polite his reply -- Stevenson truly doesn't seem like the type to hold a grudge -- he knows he's in a no-win situation."You know that's a funny question for me to answer, because what happens is the journalists will ask me in so many words, what do you think of these bands, so and so and so and so getting popular off of your guys' style?" Stevenson said. "That's like if somebody asked you 'So, did you stop beating your wife?' I can't help but seem sort of bitter or crotchety even though I'm really not."Honestly, this is my take on it. I mean, the best way I can say it is I think it's cooler that Offspring got popular than it was when Bon Jovi got popular," he said. "I'm not saying that it's the best thing that ever happened to music. It's not by a long shot, but I'd rather have it be these sorts of bands than have it be Winger and what have you and Bon Jovi. So on that level I think we've made a few steps of progress over the years."Stevenson is not just being diplomatic. He realizes the simple reality of trends in music. And he knows the Descendents and All have had plenty of company over the years in terms of their under-compensated contribution to rock and roll."Within any genre, just always in music, there has always been the kind of the Lewis and Clarks, the people who kind of forged through the trenches and kind of paved the way, the Black Flags, the Descendentses," he said."And then there have always been the people who have come along and made a lot of money off of it. I'm not going to mention these bands names because I wouldn't bother gracing them in my interview, but I mean that has always been a phenomenon within pop music and within any kind of art. I think it's, it just is. It's not good or bad, it just is."The one thing, however, that might be different is that in the end, unlike other rock and roll trailblazers (for instance, the Velvet Underground or Black Flag), Stevenson might get the chance to cash in alongside the groups he helped influence.Nearly 10 years after they last released a studio record, the Descendents -- Stevenson, singer Milo Aukerman, guitarist Stephen Egerton and bassist Karl Alvarez -- are back on the scene, touring behind the new CD, Everything Sucks.But it's not like the band ever really disappeared. While Aukerman went off to pursue his studies in biochemistry -- he now holds a PhD -- Stevenson, Egerton and Alvarez carried on, recruiting a new singer and rechristening the band as "All" (named after the title of the last album Aukerman recorded with the Descendents before delving into his post-graduate studies). Between 1988 and 1995, All, whose current lineup also includes singer Chad Price, released eight albums, and will continue to record and tour alongside the reconstituted Descendents.Aukerman, who twice left the Descendents to pursue college studies, returned to the band for a simple reason."He had started writing songs again, and had been kind of wanting to start playing music again," Stevenson said, explaining how the reunion happened. "We're the people that he would play with, of course, and he also kind of reached a point in his laboratory work -- you know, he's a biochemist -- where he was like possibly a bit bored with it, just entrenching himself in it so fully, and he was just looking for creative outlet."By the sound of things, Auckerman and crew had little trouble picking up right where they left off 10 years earlier. Everything Sucks carries the trademarks of such previous LPs as 1982's Milo Goes To College, and the 1987 release, All.The band is still kicking out plenty of two-minute salvos of melodic and forceful punk -- "I'm the One," "Rotting Out" and "I Won't Let Me" are among the highlights on Everything Sucks. They're still championing the nerds and geeks who never belonged to the in crowd, but found a sense of community within the original punk movement. And yes, their drug of choice is still caffeine (just note the 34-second tune "Coffee Mug").The very fact that punk is no longer the domain of misfits and outcasts is one of the key differences Stevenson between the '80s punk scene and today."All the kids for the most part, that are into punk rock now, they are not the kids that like had mustard squirted on them when they walked down the hall in high school," Stevenson said. "They are not like the nerd outcasts that say me and Milo were, so their lyrics and their whole approach is coming from like a different angle, not so much like an underdog thing or a trodden-upon thing. I think what that makes for is a bit more positive music, shall we say, like not with quite a chip on the shoulder...So I see that as a difference and maybe something that might make it a little easier, I guess, for bands today. They're playing punk rock, but they're getting laid as if they were playing Bon Jovi. Like we were playing punk rock and like no girl would talk to us. So it's kind of different."Musically, Stevenson sees a contrast or two in the philosophies of punk's new generation as well."One kind of staggering thing is, L.A. in 1980, every single band sounded like totally different from the other band," he said. "I mean, like the good bands. You had the Minutemen, you had Saccharine Trust, Black Flag, Descendents, X, the Plugz, and like none of them were trying to be the other ones really. That's one thing that maybe isn't quite, I don't think that this particular crop of punk rock bands have quite as strong of a like a definition, a sense of personality or individualism. I mean, I think there's definitely this kind of shall we say skateboarder/skate punker/fashion thing that has prevailed, and it's prevailing over the music and the fashion and everything, basically creating kind of a homogenous situation."But again, I have to say I prefer that image to the Def Leppard thing," he said. "So I guess it's like three steps forward, one step backwards or something. I mean, I think it would be wrong to perceive my opinion as one that like all the band suck today, because I really don't think that. I just think that there seems to be a tendency for like a more conservative approach musically."